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Feature Mon Jun 30 2008

An Interview with Aaron Delehanty

A native of Rochester, N.Y., painter Aaron Delehanty creates brightly colored, detailed landscapes that feature elements of humans' attempts at progress -- for example, factories and rock quarries -- against the backdrop of nature. His work has been featured in New American Paintings and in shows in San Francisco, Rome and Chicago, among other cities. Recently, Delehanty took a break from teaching his painting class at the Caro d'Offay Gallery in Bucktown to talk to us about his work.

One of the themes you explore in your work is uncertainty about the future, and where we are right now -- the ambiguity of the present. Can you tell us what personal or artistic experiences led you to focus on those themes?

I suppose I'm playing with people's emotions a bit. Some people fear change; others invite it if they feel that the change has some promise to it. I get a lot of those two different readings from people about my work.

One of the greatest influences in my life was a class one had to take to get into the College of History at Ohio State University. (I once got a history degree). The class was a basic philosophical introduction to history, in which the professor pounded into my head the notion that "all history is myth," and that history is written in order to make sense of the present. We read different historical accounts about the same subject - say, the Revolutionary War -- from different eras and climates, and discussed as a class how they differed. An account written around 1776 would be patriotic and assuring, while one written around the Civil War would be uneasy -- as if the experiment might not have worked out. Today, it might be written with a more global perspective, or with a highly capitalist tone worked in. In all the histories written, one always finds undercurrents of the uncertainties and fears their contemporary worlds hold. My paintings do the same.

You use egg-oil and beeswax - why those substances?

It's just really good paint. The egg-oil emulsion dries quickly, but will remain soft for months. When it's fully dry, it becomes one of the hardest paints known. That behavior of the paint fits my practice well.

You often incorporate birds and other flying objects into your work. What do they represent for you?

My work is devoid of humans, but has direct and indirect evidence that humans were there: tracks in the snow, parked vehicles, construction on hold. Birds somehow have come to represent nature (including humans). So birds, like pigeons, can refer to urban life, and we all know what circling vultures mean.

In one of my paintings, "Polar," there's a migration of birds headed towards and beyond a city that's far in the distance, while in the foreground lies a human encampment of tents in the snow. We don't really know if the birds are flying away from or returning to something. The human encampment gains that feeling as well.

What about the Japanese influences -- personal experiences, cultural interest, or something else?

I've been a fan of Japanese prints for quite some time -- I used to copy them. They use dualism a lot (water and rock, or man and woman) to open up a dialogue of sorts. That's something that has entered my work.

But I think more than anything else is the fact that one can look at a 400-year-old Japanese print and recognize something human about it -- something familiar, something that's not too removed from themselves. For example, it can be a person catching fireflies, which is something I've done. There is something timeless about them.

How has your work evolved over time?

Certainly my skill level has evolved. It is important to me to know my material well. But more than anything else, it took time for me to find my niche. I tested the waters of many ideas, but space has been the main one that I've clung to: Interior spaces, the ways we arrange our homes, and public spaces to give then meaning were early concerns. During my Masters at the San Francisco Art Institute, outdoor space -- land use -- was my primary interest. Today, I'm working with the urban form, and how through it we can move beyond our normal way of living through architecture, city design, and a post-industrial revolution treatment of our resources.

What are some of the things you do now that you would not have even thought of, say, when you started your BFA?

Landscapes. Even the word sounds kind of lame. When I answer the question, "What do you paint?," and I tell people I'm a landscape painter, they automatically think of a pastoral scene with cows, or something traditional like that. So I have to quantify my answer by saying something like, "contemporary landscape painter," or throw in words like "violent" and "construction equipment."

What are some of your favorite real-life landscapes, and can we see them in your paintings?

My favorites definitely enter my work. Skylines for sure, I am still in awe of Chicago's skyline, and its growth. One of the reasons I decided to move to Chicago was that, after a visit here, I saw constant building, constant renewal. Every block seemed to have buildings that were old, some that had just opened, some that had just a foundation built, and some in demolition. It said something about a city -- one that was renewing, progressing. I now live off of that energy; it fuels my work.

Your skies are usually not blue. Comment?

Blue skies are too stable, too high-noon. A sky with colors in it is a sky in transition: It's either getting darker or lighter, colder or warmer. Different people will see different things about transition -- fear or hope.

What is your new body of work about, and how is it different from the work you've done so far?
I recently moved back to Chicago from San Francisco. The Bay Area is a collection of many landscapes and microclimates all butting up next to each other, creating many different economic, social and cultural nooks that were directly related to the land. My work was being influenced by that.

Chicago has reinvigorated my love of the city, and how neighborhoods emerge. I have found myself reading books about "the city." My most recent work has dealt with issues I have as we (the human race) have, for the first time in history, begun a phase in which the majority of humans now live in an urban environment. It just blows my mind to think about what this means for our identity as a species, and for what this shift will mean as we move forward and progress into the city of the future.

What does the L tattoo on your arm mean? (Not "Laverne," I'm assuming.)

No, not "Laverne." I sometimes tell people that it stands for "Left Arm." But really, it's to honor my wife Laura, and to remind me that because of her support I was and am given the opportunity to actually be an artist and not stuck in a cubicle somewhere drawing in a sketchbook.

Is there a question you wish someone would ask you about your art, but no one ever does? What is that question, and what is the answer?

The question: What art shows have had a great influence on your work, or on your self? For me, it was an Yves Klein retrospective in Nice, France. I had seen the show while backpacking Europe. I took myself there to see all the great art museums shortly after making the commitment to follow an art career. Seeing a lot of Yves Klein's work at once, seeing how much he could do with one color (blue), was something that my mind was not able to wrap itself around, and it completely altered my thought on what art should be. He seemed to be testing boundaries; it was work that was confident, intelligent and brash, but was still emotional and beautiful.

About the Author:

A native of Johnstown, PA, Lauri Apple is a contender for the title, "world's most renowned bag lady," thanks to her somewhat popular (at times) website, FoundClothing. Lauri has a JD and doesn't know why, but it will take about 30 years for her to pay it off, and that worries her. Her favorite cities are Prague, Pittsburgh, Austin and Chicago. When she's not looking through people's trash, she's either painting, taking pictures, or making/thinking about making cartoons about her weird life.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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